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Nayombolmi (c. 1895–1967)

by Jeffrey Lee, Joakim Goldhahn and Sally K. May

This article was published:

Nayombolmi, by Lance Bennett, Mudginberri Station, 1966

Nayombolmi, by Lance Bennett, Mudginberri Station, 1966

Courtesy Barbara Spencer

Nayombolmi (c. 1895–1967), rock art artist, was born in around 1895 at Balawurru, Badmardi Country, Alligator Rivers region, Northern Territory. His father was Nanggwirid, a Badmardi man from whom Nayombolmi inherited his yirridjdja clan affiliation. Nayombolmi was na-mard-ku (matrimoiety) and a member of the An-djarrabuma matry, inherited from his Jawoyn mother, whose name is no longer remembered. She was of Matjpa clan. He had two wives, Rosie Almayalk (d. 1966) of Bolmo clan and Old Nellie (c. 1885–c. 1960), but no known children.

Growing up on Badmardi Country and speaking many languages/dialects, including Mayali and Jawoyn, Nayombolmi spent his early years surrounded by his extended family who taught him the necessary bush skills and cultural knowledge. With family, other clan members, and friends, he travelled across vast areas of Country, encompassing numerous clans’ lands, to visit kin, gather food and raw materials, exchange gifts, and participate in ceremonies and other activities. He became a skilful hunter, unafraid to take on a buffalo with a spear, and an excellent fisherman. For his fishing skills he was known as ‘Barramundi Charlie.’

Nayombolmi was introduced to the visual culture of the Badmardi clan and the wider Alligator Rivers region during his childhood. His father, uncle (classificatory father), and some of his cousins (classificatory brothers) were highly skilled and respected artists and Nayombolmi watched them create images on rocks and inside their wet season stringybark huts. These images embodied essential knowledge about mythological beings and events, such as when the world was created and when the laws were laid down by the First People, and were accompanied by stories and songs about everyday happenings and historical events.

Europeans began colonising Badmardi Country in Nayombolmi’s youth, initiating ‘fossicking’ (Levitus 1982, 8) economies, such as buffalo hunting, that required little capital. During the 1920s and 1930s, Nayombolmi joined different buffalo shooters on a seasonal basis, including Tom Cole, Jack Sargent, Paul Barnes, and Keith Waldock and his partner Bob Cole. Nayombolmi is also known to have worked for dingo scalpers, crocodile hunters, and gold miners. He met the overlander Francis Birtles in the wet season of 1929–30 and decorated his Bean car with paintings that resembled rock art motifs. It is not known what Nayombolmi did during World War II, but in the 1950s he was working on a seasonal basis at Barramundie station as a ‘stockman’ and at Russ Jones’s timber camp at Manlarr. Allan Stewart bought this camp in 1958 and turned it into Nourlangie Safari Camp, one of the first tourism businesses in the area. Nayombolmi and his wife Rosie were listed as staff members. His wife Old Nelly died here of a snake bite. Art collectors and dealers began visiting the area in the late 1950s, including Dorothy Bennett. Nayombolmi’s bark paintings were exhibited nationally and internationally in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Bennett collection.

Immersed in art from a young age, Nayombolmi merged Aboriginal traditions with artistic innovation to communicate highly significant cultural stories in rock paintings. Close to seven hundred rock paintings from about fifty places have been attributed to him, making him one of the ‘most prolific known rock painters in the world’ (May et al. 2019, 203). Many of his rock paintings are relatively easy to identify due to his personal style. Most display an unpolished raw technique, echoing centuries of artworks found in rock shelters throughout the region. Many of his animals are painted in the characteristic X-ray manner, revealing inner organs, including the spine, heart, and stomach. Only a handful of his figures depict introduced subject matter. Among these are a goat and a scene depicting an agitated buffalo hunter holding a gun and a skinning knife. The anthropomorphic images closely resemble artworks found further south in his mother’s clan Country where he had special cultural obligations.

The Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) area (Kakadu National Park) was an important site for Nayombolmi and his kin. Rare eyewitness testimony of some of his last painting episodes has been provided by his classificatory granddaughter Josie Maralngurra, the daughter of his close friend and fellow rock art artist Nym Djimongurr. In the wet season, when they were not needed by their employers, Nayombolmi and Djimongurr and their families made extended trips on Country where they resumed a hunting and gathering lifestyle. During a visit to the Burrungkuy area in the wet season of 1963–64, they jointly created eighteen rock paintings: eleven human figures (three men and eight women) decorated with intricate body markings known to be used in local ceremonies, three saratoga, and four mythological beings known to be involved in important events that took place in and around the area when the First People walked the earth. Later they created paintings at Nanguluwurr. Josie Maralngurra was present and they were partly made to educate her about cultural protocols.

A tall, powerful, and fully initiated man, Nayombolmi was a prominent ceremonial leader. He passed away at Mudginberri station on 14 August 1967, but his prodigious body of work continues to inspire present and emerging Aboriginal artists. His and Djimongurr’s jointly created rock paintings in the Anbangbang Gallery, Kakadu National Park, are among the most visited, celebrated, and recognised rock art in the world. Admired by hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, they frequently appear in national and global overviews of rock art. Nayombolmi’s painting of a female anthropomorphic figure from Balawurru was used on the Reserve Bank of Australia’s commemorative $10 note in 1988. In 2013–14 his work was represented in the exhibition Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists. The National Museum of Australia, Canberra, and the Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich, Germany, hold some of Nayombolmi’s bark paintings.

 

Jeffrey Lee is a Djok man and one of the senior traditional owners caring for some of the places where Nayombolmi painted. Sally K. May is Australian and Joakim Goldhahn is of Swedish descent. May and Goldhahn were living on Kaurna Country when the article was written.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Goldhahn, Joakim, Sally K. May, and Paul S. C. Taçon. ‘Revisiting Francis Birtles’ Painted Car: Exploring a Cross-Cultural Encounter with Aboriginal Artist Nayombolmi at Imarlkba Gold Mine, 1929-1930.’ History Australia 18, no. 3 (2021): 469–92
  • Haskovec, Ivan P., and Hillary Sullivan. ‘Reflections and Rejections of an Aboriginal Artist.’ In Animals into Art, edited by Howard Morphy, 57–74. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989
  • Levitus, Robert. Everybody Bin All Day Work. A Report to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service on the Social History of the Alligator Rivers Region of the Northern Territory, 1869–1973. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1982
  • Levitus, Robert. ‘From Skills to Stories: Land Rights, Life Histories and the Terms of Engagement.’ In Strings of Connectedness: Essays in Honour of Ian Keen, edited by P. G. Toner, 75–99. Acton, ACT: ANU Press, 2015
  • May, Sally K., Josie Gumbuwa Maralngurra, Iain G. Johnston, Joakim Goldhahn, Jeffrey Lee, Gabrielle O’Loughlin, Kadeem May, Christine Ngalbarndidj Nabobbob, Murray Garde, and Paul S. C. Taçon. ‘“This Is My Father’s Painting”: A First-Hand Account of the Creation of the Most Iconic Rock Art in Kakadu National Park.’ Rock Art Research 36, no. 2 (2019): 199–213
  • Taçon, Paul S. C., and Christopher Chippindale. ‘Nayombolmi’s People: From Rock Painting to National Icon.’ In Histories of Old Ages: Essays in Honour of Rhys Jones, edited by Atholl Anderson, Ian Lilley, and Sue O’Conner, 301–10. Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2001

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Citation details

Jeffrey Lee, Joakim Goldhahn and Sally K. May, 'Nayombolmi (c. 1895–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nayombolmi-31703/text39164, published online 2022, accessed online 5 July 2022.

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Nayombolmi, by Lance Bennett, Mudginberri Station, 1966

Nayombolmi, by Lance Bennett, Mudginberri Station, 1966

Courtesy Barbara Spencer

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